Keynote speaker: looking back on a big life and business lessons

It’s always a thrill to be invited as a keynote speaker, and for me, that invitation from the Women’s Network of Australia was no exception. Janelle Bostock, the CEO, wanted me up in Brisbane to address their boardroom lunch in November, 2018, and this is what I talked about.

Some life on the tools, some whys and wherefores, and a few big lessons from influential people or incidents along the way. Here is the speech, and I hope you enjoy. And of course, I began with a big question: 

“How did we all get here? And I don’t mean which transport you chose to meet the commitment of lunch.

I’m talking about how did we get here, today, to meet, enjoy some fine food and company, perhaps to hear some stories and learn something new… what confluence of events led me to be here, back in my home town, chatting with the current movers and shakers so many years after I sold my last business, and faced a new life?

And thank you for coming, to Janelle for organising the chance to meet you and perhaps create some wonderful new connections.

So back to the first question: is it chance? Or the subtle art of creating our seemingly random life paths? Or, is the new age doctrine of our choosing everything from our parents down, correct on some level?

Who knows? But what I do know, is at this point in my life, I’m being given (or taking) the time to reflect, and am trying to make some sort of sense of a completely nonsensical life. One creature I’ve admired in the animal world, is the eagle. And in business, I’ve tried to emulate those qualities that this incredible bird possesses.

What are they? The ability to soar above the local environment and see the big picture; to see the forest as well as the trees, and the sharp eye to identify the mice scurrying around in the detritus of the forest floor. And then the sharp intuition to be able to single out the weakest link, and have it for breakfast!

These are all valuable skills when running a business, but how does this metaphor apply to life? Try Google Maps – I Google mapped my life, and quite frankly, it was a bit of shock. Rather than the smooth confluence of two or three rivers or pathways, finally meeting into one broad stretch of water moving deep, and slow, towards the sea, I saw mine as looking rather like the Mississipi delta, a crazy mixed up dart board of crooked and multitudinous streams that suddenly met just before the ocean – vast and old as life itself.

A less sequacious life path could hardly be imagined. And upon reflection, a few revelations flitted across my ever busy monkey mind. We are indelibly, indisputably influenced by our parents. Much more, than any of us give credit. How else do you explain a conscious determination to bound out of the boxing ring of an inconvenient marriage, only to repeat it, so many years later?

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Head chef at my final restaurant – the best, and worst thing I’ve ever done

My mother was exceedingly generous on only one count, ever, and that was criticism. Negativity her middle name, narcissism her diagnosis. My father, frustrated as he was in his career, blaming the war for joining the police, rose to the highest ranks by sheer hard work and study. Superintendent? Tick. Head of the first ever Police College? Tick. Rewrote the police manual, Tick. Spoke six languages, fluently, tick. Head of ASIO for Queensland? Tick. Less than satisfying personal life, tick.

He did all that while my mother, a rebellious artist, played with her friends and Ian Fairweather on Bribie Island, sketching nude portraits of each other, and intermittently escaping the confines of miserable marriages, all of them.

But to what end is all this about? Well, I guess it’s setting the scene for my own trajectory where I felt, when I left home at 17, fired out of a cannon, free to dilly and dally wherever life took me. Unfettered by parental expectations (I didn’t have a penis, like my brother, so what was the point of paying for any university education? said my father – paraphrased.)

But for me, that was business lesson number one: looking around the wall of a roadblock, and finding a solution. It may not have been a solution that was perfect, but I decided I would work at the University Bookshop, because in those days, to work at Uni, entitled one to free tuition.

And the early 70s were awash with jobs and promise. I had no plan, ending up on a train heading to Barcaldine, to barmaid and save for the necessary trip to Carnaby Street and swinging London. Did I make it? Hell no, I got married instead. To the wrong man, which I repeated again 15 years later.

But during that first marriage, we had fun, worked hard, drank hard, and made some cracking mistakes, which we were agile and young enough, to survive. I might also note here that I may, or may not at some stage, drop the “F” bomb, because, thanks to all those years in calamitous kitchens, and a rigid father, like a billiard ball the word seems to bounce around at the back of my brain, and every now and then finds the pocket.

My second business lesson: Check and double check that everything that needs to be accounted for – is. Our first night at the opening of Diablo’s is a story you might enjoy (if just out of sheer schadenfreude): the world had turned up in spite of my refusing to advertise, or invite – anyone! Soft opening was my dream, we were green, and pretty stupid.

But, of course, we had a full house, turned away dozens, so the pressure was on, and my husband, Steve, realised he’d forgotten ice for the ice buckets. Needless to say, with a few mumbled words he spun out of the drive and headed three suburbs away to get ice, at the beginning of service, leaving José Louis Fernandez-Soler, my partner’s husband, to the mercy of the hungry hordes. With as much as, or even less, English than Manuel.

Somehow, we survived, but a few customers never came back, and spread their fury for a long time. We prospered in spite of our lack of preparation, but we learned to pivot on a marble, and I set up systems at every step of our then, long preparation process.

That was lesson three: Pivot like a ballerina on point, and get the balance right.

Ploughing through a series of restaurants, a big deli and catering business up the Sunshine Coast years later, handed me lesson number four on a greasy platter:

My husband, Steve, master of the spit roast, headed out to The Oasis, a verdant green carpet of land, and site of an afternoon wedding. Pig on a spit, the main course. But when the owner demanded that, instead of setting the spit up on open ground, with the threat of scorching his manicured lawns, Steve set the spit inside an open tennis shed, with a concrete floor.

Being ever amiable, my husband did as he was told. Marvellous, not. He got the pig going, and came back to pick up the rest of the catering at our deli. In the meantime, the pig had other ideas, dived into the fire and burnt the shed down. The owner was apoplectic. Somehow I managed to find another pig at short notice on the Coast on a quiet Saturday afternoon, and while it lacked ears and form, Steve had it whirling like a dervish on the spit, cutting slabs off as they cooked, dripping sweat into hot coals in 50 degree heat.

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The second pig doing its thing

Lesson four? Don’t always do as you’re told!

Lesson five? Trust no one, even yourself, as we all miss things and make mistakes. And even you, may not deep down have your own best interests at heart. (Our eagerness to please, or reach that goal can cloud otherwise sharp judgement).

Years later, divorced and slogging away on restaurant number 8, La Cuisine, the council informed me that my marvellous landlord, Dr. X, a thief and a rogue, had neglected to get any council approval for the premises he had leased me. And while my solicitor had raised the red flag, I had pushed on and insisted we sign because I wanted that opportunity more than anything.

Well, it was a tortuous and family crushing process (my father was lessee to protect me from Steve’s bankruptcy), but I got there in the end, and with a fantastic bit of advice from my dad: “Tina, you’re too emotional. Get all emotion out of dealing with people because it’s a killer, and will do you no favours.”

Lesson six? As women, emotion does tend to cloud our decisions way too often, so get rid of that, and think like a man. Something I did at Expo 88, dealing with a powerful boyfriend, and I profited an easy $30K. Lesson learned.

Lesson seven was courtesy of that same very powerful boyfriend. Emmett Cunningham, who came hot on the heels of my time with Peter Bayliss, living next door to the Gambaros. Emmett built Expos around the world, and gave me two tenders at Expo 88. He taught me how to tender – dragging me along to watch him pitch to the Russians. He was like a premier danseuse, getting every yes from his audience possible as he spread the beautiful potential before them, then hitting them with the deal: $3 million.

The collective intake was loud. He took control, elicited a few more ‘yeses’ and sent them out to discuss the pitch, the project, ensuring every time, that there was nothing, nothing, they objected to. When they came back, with a weak, “But it’s the price, Mr. Cunningham, ve cannot possibly meet zat price!” he answered, “I understand of course,” and with a grand sweep across the beautiful model in front of them, that they had fallen in love with in every detail, he finished with “What do you want to cut?”

At this table, I do not have to explain the psychology and engendering of trust that this approach has. Needless to say, I never lost a tender since.

There are a host of other lessons from my last, and most brutal restaurant, but they’re not ready to be opened just yet – it’s a Pandora’s box, and I have legal advice pending publication of its story.

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Possums’ Australian Food, the take away section which was the scene of some saucy happenings – it was New Farm, in the 80s.

But there’s a lesson I learned recently, from one of my chef interviews, I’d like to share, for those who hire staff or coach people who hire staff, and it’s from Ruben Koopman, ex-Michelin chef I met in Hobart. A maverick, fantastically talented man who has pioneered a new way of dealing with the dreaded problem of hiring the right staff, finding that right fit.

What did he do? He threw away resumés to start with, and brain stormed with his management team at Frogmore Creek, until they chose 8 words that represented the ethos and ethics of Frogmore. He printed those words large and posted them on the back of the kitchen wall, then on a piece of paper, which he pushed across to each interviewee, demanding, “Tell me what those words mean to you.”

Simple? Yes. Genius? Yes. It forced him to listen, hard, and to look at the person in front of him. Giving them no time to make up trite rubbish, no time to hide behind a carefully prepared façade, just pushing open a door into that person’s psyche and values. Often, Ruben said, it also pointed them into another direction, where their true passion lay.

Revolutionary? I think so.

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My last restaurant – ever. It was gorgeous and funky, and so ahead of its time.

And lastly, a vision I had, during meditation, that hasn’t left me, and something that almost haunts me occasionally. It was during the end of my last business, when I thought I was going to die, and nothing I did saved me from the carnage, inflicted by persons beyond – way beyond my control.

I did the usual “Urban Shaman” exercise, of walking with my power animal down a cave, then coming out into a garden that was exquisite. Then suddenly, I found myself on the side of a road, at night, and a small Dodge’em car pulled up with a screech and the passenger door swung open. It was driverless, weirdly so, but I climbed in to the passenger seat, the door swung shut, and the car took off at a fast speed, over-correcting until it settled into a comfortable journey.

I began to feel odd that there was no driver, but the car seemed to know where it was headed. I worried that my family and friends would be concerned that there I was, passenger, in a driverless buggy. So I chose, to ameliorate their anxiety, to speak to an imaginary driver. And I did, having a conversation with the space next to me, feeling better that my family would trust me that all was well, and someone, was in charge!

Having missed death by a hair’s breadth many times, and determined to make a difference to a sick and dying industry, Off the Hotplate is my passion project, and we’re starting to kick goals that will revolutionise workplaces and the people in them. Why do I so badly want to give back to an industry that’s been less than kind at times?

I guess it comes back to make-up. My make-up.

I know what I am, and have for some time – I’m a catalyst – I desperately want to create change – it’s a deep driver within me that is as much a part of me as my brain, my eyes, my soul. And sometimes it’s pushed me too far when I should hold back, so driving Off the Hotplate satisfies that deep need within me, without my pushing myself and my ideas too much on a personal level. I can make a difference, in a big way. And the wheels are slowly turning to allow me to take it to a big stage.

So, thank you all very much for being here, being present, for helping me get the word out to make a difference.

And in spite of all the near misses, and no one being in the driver’s seat?

I’M STILL HERE.

With love, Christine Matheson-Green

You can find the Hotplate here: Off the Hotplate